Dharini Thiruchittampalam

B.Arch. 1989
Vancouver, BC
February 19, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I guess the first thing we’re interested in is how you decided to become an architect and secondly, how you chose McGill University.

Well, the fact of going to McGill sort of happened by accident. I came to McGill; I went to McGill rather, to study medicine. However, once I got there, a strange thing happened. I’d always been interested in architecture from the age of fifteen, especially because of the houses I was exposed to in Sri Lanka, some gorgeous houses. But once I got to McGill and I was in my first year courses, which were these huge science courses in which hundreds of people all wanted to become doctors, I started to reevaluate my reasons. And then I signed up for a career day in which there was medicine, dentistry and architecture. Geriatric dentistry turned me right off dentistry, the slide show. And then the architecture talk was incredibly passionate, and right now, I can’t remember his name. He wasn’t a professor at McGill when I was there but he was there the year before. And he was so passionate, I stayed twice as long at his talk and I totally missed the medicine talk. And that really intrigued me I guess.


And you don’t remember who it was.



Slater! There you go. It was Norman Slater. He was very excited and passionate about what he was doing.

And this would have been about, what 1982?

1984. So he might have been there for one year during my first year but I didn’ t have any courses with him. And so I just thought, “Wow, everybody is so interested in what they’re doing” and I liked that. It was contagious. So I applied to the School of Architecture and got accepted, did some summer courses, and spent the next four years there. Went straight through.


So you actually started, when, in 1985?



To ’89.

I guess what we would be interested in hearing about are some of the professors that you remember and some of your comments either good or bad about them or whatever.

Well, my two of my favourite professors were Norbert Schoenauer and Ricardo Castro. Again, because they had a deep kind of passion and conviction for what they were doing and that really intrigued me again. And they expressed it in a different way. I mean, Ricardo, with his Latin blood, was a little more warm and outgoing and Norbert Schoenauer was very kind of quiet and subdued. And I remember doing a project with him on Falling Water. And then, actually, last spring, I went to see Falling Water for the first time and I just remember again his enthusiasm about what he taught. So they were two of my favourite professors.


Ricardo and Norbert.

Yeah, yeah. I just- I think there was a sensitivity that they had. And one of my problems or- that I had with my experience at McGill, good and bad, it has a good side to it too, I was incredibly young. I was 22 when I graduated and that was the youngest of my year because I didn’t take a year out. The positive side of that was that I could leave McGill and then my real education started. It was all done and I took off to Europe. But I understand now that McGill is going into a graduate programme.

Yes, they are.

And I think that’s a good thing. I’ve had many debates with my boyfriend, who went to UBC, which is a graduate programme. I think it’s a good thing because you’re not ready to stand up for your own convictions in such a subjective field.

And quite often, your convictions are not all that rock solid at twenty-two years of age.

That’s right. There was a classic in my first studio where one professor walked by my desk and the visiting professor walked by about ten minutes later and they said the opposite things. And I was sitting there going wait a minute. Because, you know, because I think at eighteen, one really still listens to their professors, so-. But there was another architect- he was a visiting T.A. from France, Philippe, I’ve forgotten his last name. He was also incredibly good. He introduced me to Luis Barragán and I will never forget that.


What about the other people, though? I’m trying to think of either Derek Drummond or David Covo or Bruce Anderson. Did they have any influence? Were you taking any courses from them?

Yeah, I had courses with Derek and David Covo in first year and second year. And they were- Derek, I remember his sense of humour. He was very incredible in that he made me feel at ease. I think I was somewhat intimidated by David Covo. And I think that might have been part of his tool. Whereas now, I think I’d be less intimidated. But he was an incredible artist, I remember that. Bruce Anderson I had very little contact with until the end of school. And if we’re being absolutely honest, I mean, I liked him, but I don’t think we connected so well on design. We didn’t not connect, but I didn’t feel any passion. So that wasn’t as interesting an experience for me. Howard Davies, who is now a professor there, and he was just a T.A. I think back there, he again had a huge, huge, what’s the word? Passion. But he wasn’t my teacher but he was influential.


Sheppard, was he there at the time?

Yeah, Sheppard was fantastic. However, I did not enjoy the project we did with him. But- one of the projects, the house in Westmount. But the other ecclesiastic retreat, I enjoyed very much. He was great. Again, he was just- he was clear. He was methodical and clear and he, again, had a love of what he was doing. He was committed. Also, the other person that was intriguing that I used to observe from a distance was Julia Gersovitz.

Oh yes. She’s the architectural historian.

Yeah. ‘Cause she was the only female that we had. I think I was at McGill during a very transitional period. We spent two years in the old engineering building, and then two years in the new one. And there’s always just a physical transition. I think their whole philosophy was changing. Perez-Gomez came in in the latter two years. And so it was almost like we were just the last generation and they were starting these fabulous models and the exchange to Columbia started, which I would have definitely gone on if I had been in second year when it started. So it was an odd place. It was almost like I was at two schools. And it was a little conservative. And I think it’s nice, I understand that Annmarie Adams is there now and to have a bit more female blood, something different and a young blood. But I understand it’s not all just McGill blood as well, which is of interest.


Was Annmarie not there when you were there?

No, she was a visiting crit during thesis and-

But who taught you history? Was it Derek then, the History of Architecture?

Ricardo Castro.

Ah, okay. Do you remember any of the other visiting-? Sometimes, classmates or graduates talk about some of the other professors- not professors but architects who were, I guess, crits who came in and gave you the-?

I don’t remember the crits as much as the visiting professors, like Mark Pimlott. Then there was a guy from Princeton but I don’t remember his name. But that was another fun little project. But the crits not as much. No, my most unpleasant experience, do you want me to talk about that?

Certainly do!

Was my thesis because I think we anticipate, we put a lot of hopes and dreams and expectations on it. And I think McGill’s procedure of having a professor choose us based on a proposal is backwards. It should be the other way.


Just repeat that again, just because I want to-.

At the time I was doing my thesis, we would do our summer project, our proposal, and then the professor chose the student they wanted to work with. I think it should be the student picking the professor because I was chosen by Witold Rybczynski. And I had heard a lot of mixed reviews about him and I said, “No, I’ll have my own experience”. However, it was a very unpleasant experience and in such a short thesis, which was only three months long, I had to switch mid-stream.

What was your original thesis? I mean did you switch professor?

The topic stayed, I switched the professor. Because I think he has a lot of respect in an academic field, but as teaching, there has to be a rapport with your students.

They don’t only go hand in hand.

Yeah, and I think that was missing and it was hard for a few people. And that is probably my biggest, saddest regret, because I wanted, you know, you want to go out with-. Whereas the semester before had been a lot more fun. And that was with Bruce Anderson and a couple- and a few visiting professors, John, well, that was maybe the year before, John Lochner from the architecture magazine? No, not John Lochner, you might have to edit that part, sorry! But anyway, so that kind of feels good to actually say the biggest regret. And then do you want to hear what I did after?


But before you do that, so actually, you made the decision to switch your-?

Well it was difficult. I was starting to wonder if I was going to even get through. It was a very unpleasant experience. I switched to I think it was Sheppard, yeah, Sheppard. And then that, you know, that was fine. But it was unpleasant.

Yeah, yeah, I suppose. But this is a memory that is not all that positive, but at least your memories of McGill are all pretty positive.

Oh, my memories of the university? ‘Cause I was one of the- I lived on campus and in the ghetto. It was a blast. It was incredible. I loved it. It was- you know, probably too much time playing sometimes, which wasn’t typically my nature.


I think everybody does that, though. You don’t ever regret it either.

Well, the city is conducive to that, that particular city. I miss Montreal. Actually, when I graduated, I really considered staying there. But the winters, that was enough to turn me off!

What happened after you- at the age of 22 and left university, what happened to you then? Where did you go and what did you do?

I had applied to IESTA, which predominantly engineers did. It was an exchange programme to go overseas. And I decided to go work in London that summer before my placement that summer in Holland. I got a placement in Holland. I didn’t even stay for my convocation because it was a month later. So I took off to Holland, found a place to live. Some other roommates, rather classmates, from McGill, which was Margaret and Darryl Condon came over and then later Trevor Marchand came over and I found a place to live, I found a job. London was booming. Lots of job offers. I worked the summer, traveled, then went to Holland for three months. I had the opportunity to stay in Holland for a year, a job offer, a couple of them. But I missed London. It was a different experience. But by the time I went back in ’89, the recession had hit and the jobs were a lot more scarce. But I was fortunate. It took several weeks but I found a very good job, because at that time, you’re still wondering whether to do grad studies or just focus on the practical training. And because I was so young, I had nothing tying me down. I could just go with the flow. And I got an excellent job at a firm called ABK in London. The firm had a lot of integrity, a really eclectic body of work, and I was lucky that they kept me through a couple of- because things got tight there as well. And what I thought was going to be a six-month stay in Europe ended up lasting two years. So it was wonderful. That was probably the most critical thing in my experience. I worked on the Docklands Light Railway, a little footbridge, and a few other things. And then after that, I had to do something that was always in my mind. I left my boyfriend at the time, just long distance, to go work in Sri Lanka and I wanted to work there.


Is that where you were born?

That’s where I was born.


And I had never really lived there. So I found a job with a very talented, eccentric architect and I worked with him. And it was quite an experience because we worked in kind of the suburbs of Colombo, which is very suburbs, slightly rural. But it was in, you know, a concrete house and we worked at the back of his garage, where he had a trishaw, he didn’t even have a car, a trishaw. And we used setsquares and I did pencil drawings. You know, this is the age of the computer setting in too. And it was a lot of fun. I learned about my culture and my history. And then decided if I wasn’t going to settle there it was time to get back to the West. So decided where I was going to start building my career. And always had my heart set on coming back to Vancouver. I’m not sure if that was right leaving Europe or not. So we came back here. And eventually, you know, that relationship didn’t work out but I was back here. And again, with a couple of odd jobs. I actually worked briefly with Nick Milkovich, who works extensively with Arthur Erickson. And that was great. But that was a slow time for them. And then I- the last four years I’ve been working with a really dynamic firm called Busby and Associates. It used to be Busby Bridger Architects. And I think this has been one of the most intense learning experiences you can have. It’s like the equivalent to New York: If you can make it there, you can make it almost anywhere, the same learning experience, I hope. So it’s a really fascinating little office because half, at least over half of the employees have worked in Europe. And he models the office after Foster and Associates, because about three, I think, of them have worked in either Foster’s or Rogers’s in England. So we’re trying. He has a lot of vision. But the Vancouver clientele base is not like Montreal, let alone Europe. So it takes some nurturing and a lot of patience.


And a lot of selling, I mean you always have to go out and pedaling architecture, which a lot of architects don’t feel comfortable doing.

Yeah, Vancouver is a very commercial climate. It’s not yet very designed-oriented. But it will get there.

What, since I don’t know you that well, what would you consider your strength in architecture to be? I mean, is that a fair question to ask you?

Sure, if I had the answer straight away! But I suppose I’ve been told I apparently have an eye, just an inherent eye for design and composition. But I think one of my strengths is I might be fairly even. All of my strength, they may not excel, but I can- I have people skills. I went into architecture predominantly because I wanted to do- you know, change the world- not change the world but affect people’s lives on a small scale with beautiful objects. Just simple things, their lifestyle, everyday life. So I think part of my artistic talent- sometimes I’m freer when I’m just doing that. With all the other disciplines in architecture, it’s a fascinating field. It’s very Renaissance. So I don’t know if that answers your question. I’m sort of even.


I think you have answered it. I think, that’s fair- one day, something will develop, your interest will develop in a certain discipline of architecture and then if I talk to you ten years from hence, you’ll say it then.

But I know for certain, I’m very- I don’t like developer-driven architecture as much, because I’m very interested in the user. I like to design for the end-user.

In fact, unfortunately, Vancouver has suffered from that design, lack of design, because I was overwhelmed when I came here, I was here about a year ago. And all of a sudden, there’s a number of buildings that are, you know, sort of high up off the ground and certainly all around the bayshore. And it’ s terrible. I mean, oh!

Oh yeah, it’s really bad! It’s really bad. I mean Vancouver is not really a beautiful city. It’s a beautiful setting.

Setting. And there are a few interesting buildings. There’s quite a few interesting buildings. But this junk that’s been allowed to permeate throughout the city, and this particular building, I was down at the bayshore and I saw it. I thought it was concrete block. And it’s a very expensive-

Granite! Yes, I know the one! And I know the architect. I don’t know if I should say that on camera!


But he- as I said, I had lunch with a fellow by the name of Peter Wreglesworth and he was with the firm- it’s fifteen hundred [unclear], I guess, and I said, “Why is it that a lot of these developer, residential apartment houses or condos, the architect’s name is not prominently displayed?” And he said, “Well, maybe they don’t want to be prominent”.

Yeah, that’s true! That’s a good point.


Just talk about the disillusionment, I guess, that you are sort of experiencing today in architecture.

Yeah. Maybe again that was a product of how young we were when we studied it, but we really thought you were going to do something. I mean it’s part of the reason I chose a profession, because there were a lot of other professions I could make a lot more money in and probably get a lot more respect in society. This is sort of a dying renaissance profession. But you went in for the payback being creativity. And it’s kind of slowly being squeezed out of my everyday existence. And I have to say, for the last few years, especially in this climate, Vancouver, I question whether I made the right decision. I know inherently, people say I get very animated and I’m excited. I love architecture. But the reality is, interior designers do more architecture than we do in actually creating a dynamic space, something, you know, that might be more temporary but it’s like a canvas you can work with. But I find that we’re doing more and more mundane things. And even for that, we’re fighting. We’re struggling against just builders and engineers and whoever else it’s going to be. But and the other thing that is really hard is I find there’s very few role models. I realize we’re sort of a bridge generation and that there weren’t a lot of female architects before, but there were a number before me that should be thirty-five around now. But there’s like a black hole, there’s a vacuum. I don’t believe that they chose to go there because they had kids. But it’s hard to maintain a wonderful family life and a profession that is so demanding and consuming. So that’s sort of discouraging right now and I do wonder if this is the right choice when there were a few other options, like medicine. And believe me, my parents take their opportunity to remind me, you know!